Last Novemer, Hanif Johnson won the district judge seat for Dauphin County Magisterial District in Pennsylvania. He was the youngest district judge in Pennsylvania at just 27 years old.
Now, Johnson is set to preside over the state’s capital, which is predominately black. He told The Huffington Post he intends to bring empathy and compassion to bear on the cases put before him.
“I know how it feels”
Johnson is no stranger to the court, though when he was younger, he was on the other side of the bench. He was taken to jail three times in his life.
When he was a teenager, he was on the wrong path until he decided to turn from running from the police to running track, he told the Huffington Post.
“One day, I decided this ain’t the way I want to live my life, so I started running track. Track actually saved my life,” Johnson said.
He later became state champion and currently coaches at Harrisburg High School.
Johnson went on to become the president of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at Penn State University, where he found himself before a judge again over hazing allegations.
“I went to jail for two weeks, then I went to trial. Thank God I won,” Johnson told the Huffington Post. “That was one of the happiest days; I just felt like my life was going to be taken from me.”
But, he said, that experience is one he will keep in mind when others appear before him.
“It’s crazy because I know how it feels sitting across from that judge and that jury when you’re innocent,” he said.
The youngest district judge
Johnson told the Huffington Post that he was inspired to run when he saw what was happening to the nation under Donald Trump.
“When you sit back, and you see Donald Trump become president, and you hear about all of these things we are being affected by, it seems like everything happens through the court system,” he said. “Everybody always says, well, we complain about stuff, but we never get up and do anything. This is me getting up and doing something.”
But when he started running, Johnson said, people laughed at him and even shut the door in his face.
“They laughed at me in my face,” Johnson recalled. “They said, ‘Boy, if you don’t get away from my house saying you want to be a judge. You are too young!’ But after the fourth or fifth conversation, I would ask them who they are voting for, and they would say me.”
“I guess I’m not a joke anymore,” he said.
Now that he’s won, Johnson intends to keep his promises to the people he talked to.
“Being that I live in that area, they know me, I know the people, I know what’s going on,” he said. “You have single moms that can’t pay a parking ticket; I have the control to make life easier for her, rather than someone from out of town who don’t understand that $100 ticket might be too much for her and she ends up in jail over that ticket.”
Now, other young people are coming out to run for office, a trend Johnson is trying to encourage.
“A lot of people came out the house and voted just because I was running,” he said. “If you want to do something and make a change, then just go out and do it.”